Austin, Texas is one of my favourite cities globally for many reasons; among them, year round local events, festivals and celebrations for all ages, its democratic political reputation (the blue dot in a sea of red) and its weird-cool culture.
Another reason I love Austin is its amazing ability to connect people together. I’ve had one such experience.
Earlier this year I attended SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin to pick up the Dewey Winburne Community Service award that was granted to me in recognition of my digital literacy work with high school students in Africa. At the award ceremony, I met Yasmin and Papa Diallo from HOPE for Senegal, who were interested in organizing a digital camp for students of El Hadji Malick Sy High School in Thiès (pronounced ‘chess’), Senegal. I agreed.
Last week, the Jamlab team – Kas, Jane and I – conducted a Digital Camp at the afore mentioned institution. The camp was primarily aimed at teaching the students the value of openness, collaboration and sharing on the Internet and how they can translate this to benefit themselves as well as their families and communities.
The highlight of the program was seeing how digital culture could easily be transmuted despite some level of language barrier and differing cultures and the knowledge sharing between two African countries. To be honest, its not the first time I’ve worked in intra-African knowledge sharing programs but something was really special about this initiative.
You see most true African cultures are based on values such as kindness, sharing and cooperation. These values are in some ways directly responsible for the growth of digital cultures such as collaboration and sharing. In fact, the greatest of the web’s achievements are solidly built on these values. A good case in example would be Wikipedia.
The training we conducted in Senegal was highly based on these values that sustain digital culture and I was completely blown away by how easy it was for the Senegalese community to relate to and adopt the materials we presented to them. If anything, it felt like we had been working on them together for years primarily because it felt like familiar territory.
…and that strikes a thought in my mind…
If the values in digital culture and African heritage are similar, can we use them to foster intra-African collaboration and knowledge sharing?
If my experience working in Senegal is any benchmark to go by, I would say its definitely worth a shot. The only challenge I foresee is the murky territorial behaviour of a few luminaries in the technology industry.
“…If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”
- Genesis 11:6 NIV
Here’s a little thing you didn’t know about me: I never owned a laptop till my third year of University.
A lot of people, like you, are probably wondering how I managed.
In 2010, I heard about a conference called Tech4Africa. From their website:
Tech4Africa is the premier mobile, web & emerging technology event, bringing global perspective to the African context.
Culminating in an annual event over two days, which brings together attendees and speakers from around the world, our vision is that technology can catalyse economic and social change in Africa.
It’s an exciting time for African technology and we hope that you enjoy the opportunity that Tech4Africa presents, as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it all together.
Tech in Africa was just about booming with the launch of the iHub in Nairobi and the many techies who were just now building a community around technology. The Tech4Africa conference couldn’t come at a better time!
To market the conference, the team decided to give away an iPad (the original iPad 1 I must add) as a part of the competition before the conference.
Rules were simple. Tweet about the conference and you’ll get prize.
Fast forward to today.
I’m at SXSW and I meet these guys. Toby Shapshak, Nivi, Natalie Cofield and Gareth Knight. Gareth is the founder of Tech4Africa.
Natalie Cofield is the resident & CEO of the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce in Austin, TX brought Nivi and I here through their Africa Diaspora Fellowship program. She had met Gareth Knight at last years Tech4Africa conference in South Africa.
Now here’s the interesting bit of the story:
Remember the iPad I told you about earlier? I won it.
For the longest time, that iPad was my primary computer before I got my laptop. It’s what I used to set up my initiatives (The Kuyu Project at the time) and run the organization. Its what connected me to my co-founders and enabled me to collaborate with them even though they were in different time zones. It’s what enabled me to use the Internet to tell my story and share my experiences with everyone else out there.
The dots connect when my work was recognized by the African American Capital City Chamber of Commerce and they awarded me the Africa Diaspora Fellowship. The Chamber had reached out to Tech4Africa team looking for people to award their fellowship.
So there we were – Natalie, Gareth and I – engaged in conversation stunned by the sum aggregate of our actions had come full circle! The dots had connected! In a sense, our actions contributed to the growth of each others initiatives which in turn made an impact on us and the people around us.
How powerful is that?
I don’t know what the future holds for each one of our initiatives honestly but I do know one thing for sure – our efforts wherever they may happen in whatever time, not only empowers those around us or our intended beneficiaries, but ourselves as well!
A lot of the buzz around SXSW focuses on the next big thing, the latest trends, preparing for the future etc. Its a great conversation really. I take nothing from that.
I am however concerned that we often forget what’s important – the value these conversations, thoughts and ideas add to our lives… more so, improve them.
Austin is a great city – not your stereotypical Texas city – but a great city nonetheless. It has a great culture, a vibrant people – a very friendly people at that, and to crown it all off, it offers one of the best conference experiences ever in the form of SXSW!
Thankfully, through the support of the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce, I got a shot to experience it all for myself. I attended some pretty interesting panels, meetups and parties and talked to/met some really cool people.
The thing I find interesting the most is the culture and how it shapes the lifestyle and livelihoods of the people here.
I’m still wrapping my head around the crazy schedules and I look forward to day two and the rest of the programming. More soon as it unfolds.
I’m here with Nivi Mukherjee of eLimu. Check out her day 1 experience here.
About a year ago, a couple of colleagues and I went to Nsambya in Kampala to train a community of Congolese refugees on the value of social media and how they could use it to meet their goals. We did this training as part of The Kuyu Project programs in partnership Xavier Project. You can read more about the training here or watch a few of the highlights of the event in the video below
Last Friday, I got another opportunity to visit with this community and was pretty impressed by how far they had progressed over the last year. The community now has a physical space – Tamuka Hub – with 10 computers and a full time staff that provide trainings on all sorts of things including social media. The hub idea came out of a discussion we had with them about how they could design their space in a way that would better complement and facilitate their activities.
If you walk into Tamuka Hub today, you may be a little confused as to why its called a ‘hub’ but doesn’t necessarily have the look and feel of one. I was for a few moments. I later came to appreciate the value of what I had seen at Tamuka Hub.
Basically, it’s a co-working space of sorts with out all the flashy cool stuff and hype. It’s very basic and tries to provide the very basic resources necessary to carry out tasks. The thinking behind it is the flashy stuff and the hype distracts (and to some extent, prevents) people from focusing on their tasks and achieving personal and collective goals.
I agree with this thinking at its basic level.
If you own a hub or work in a community space etc, ask yourself this question. If you’re space were to be stripped down to a bare minimum – table, chairs and an Internet connection, without the hype, brand recognition etc – what would you say your personal and collective goals are?
No, really. Think about it.
The staff at Tamuka Hub are very clear on what their mission is – without a doubt. They make do with what they have and are very pragmatic about resource allocation. Rarely does anything get wasted. Anything that is used up achieves a well defined objective.
…and I believe this thinking yields really great productivity and stories.
I spent a good part of my afternoon yesterday following the proceedings at the Connected Kenya Summit which is aims to establish a platform for collaboration, capacity building and priority sharing between government and the IT sector with a view of linking and hastening implementation of government IT projects to world class standards.
One of the sessions, “Knowledge Diffusion & Open Data” focused heavily on the Kenya Open Data Initiative - its challenges and opportunities. The panel for this session was made up of the following people:
- Cam Cadwell, National Account Manager, Socrata
- Dr Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication
- Dr Katherine Getao, ICT Secretary, Directorate of eGovernment
- Marisella Ouma, CEO, Copyright Board
- Chris Finch, World Bank
- Paul Kukubo – CEO, Kenya ICT Board
Almost every one of these guys called out techies to make use of the open data portal by creating apps etc.
Techies reacted naturally: update the data.
Simple argument: Techies thrive in an environment that’s constantly moving fast with new technologies, new knowledge and new skills. So data that’s dated 2009 is very unappealing to this group.
That’s the boring stuff. Here’s the exciting part.
Rather than focus our efforts on asking the Government & other open data stakeholders like the World Bank to update their datasets, why don’t we participate in the open data movement by ‘creating’ open data? Here’s an example: setting up sensors on a public road to monitor and gather traffic data.
Chris Finch from the World Bank spoke about personal data and its value towards improving people’s lives if strategically mined to do so.
Why not build an open data portal and apps that aggregate citizen generated data?
The major value add here is that the data is real time and in that sense timely. This is critical because data made available as quickly as necessary preserves the value of the data – a core principle according to the Open Government Data Principles.
This also addresses the frustration of ‘old’ data on the existing data platforms.
Build on this?
…no, I’m not in one of my slacktivism modes again…at least not yet.
I read an article on the New York Times this morning - Computer Science for the Rest of Us. It starts off from a common foundation:
Many professors of computer science say college graduates in every major should understand software fundamentals. They don’t argue that everyone needs to be a skilled programmer. Rather, they seek to teach “computational thinking” — the general concepts programming languages employ.
I think we all agree on that. What seems to be rousing debate is what exactly are the core elements of ‘Computational Thinking’ and the definitions of computer literacy.
I particularly have an issue with the following statement from the article.
“ ‘Literacy’ implies reading and writing, so ‘computer literacy’ suggests that writing programs is a required skill for activity under this name,” says Henry M. Walker, a computer science professor at Grinnell. “However, general citizens may or may not have to write programs to function effectively in this technological age.” He prefers to promote “computer fluency,” attainable without assignments in programming.
I think this is stereotypical.
Stereotypical in the sense that the ‘writing’ part of computer literacy has been skewed towards programming yet there are so many other aspects of computing that could count as ‘writing’.
I just peeked at the Computer Literacy article on Wikipedia (thank God for collective intelligence) and even they have a better understanding of it.
Computer literacy is defined as the knowledge and ability to use computers and related technology efficiently, with a range of skills covering levels from elementary use to programming and advanced problem solving.
You see, with computers in general, its both the strategic use and the skills necessary to do so – not one over the other. We shouldn’t want to screw over some guys because they don’t know how to code basing this on the argument that its a ‘necessary’ skill. I don’t think so.
I’m not going to insist on defining what ‘basic’ and ‘necessary’ skills are with regard to computational thinking and computer science but I do believe we need to have these conversations to avoid benchmarking wrong assumptions to popular stereotypes.
A little background…
In 2010 I participated in a workshop organized by Hivos and the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore dubbed “My Bubble. My Space, My Voice”. This was part of a series of workshops in three different regions that resulted into a knowledge inquiry into the field of youth, technology and change in a four book collective “Digital AlterNatives with a Cause?”
Photo Credit: Maureen Agena
I run digital literacy camps through The Kuyu Project initiative one of which was with a group of girls who created a social network to consolidate the efforts of high school students around community service. I used the Digital AlterNatives with a Cause? Book (download free here) as one of the training tools and we had lots of fun with it.
The girls found the title of the book “weird” for some reason and made a lot of fun about it. Eventually the idea of the book sunk in their minds and one of the girls, Kasyoka Salim, eventually linked it to my character and beliefs: she called me a “Rebel with a cause!”
In her own words…
The idea here is the belief that everyone has within themselves the ability to challenge the existing stereotypes and dogmas in pursuit of something they strongly believe in and identify with…and that’s the boring part!
The exciting part is the undertaking process and its manifestation which make a huge contribution to the strengthening of your character. (I see this everyday in the girls that I mentor…and oh is it a joy to watch!)
Its a task…that I know experientially for sure! But for all its worth, count me in!
UPDATE: Really like @NonieMG‘s comment so I’m giving this post an alternative title: “Take the SH out of IT!”
The inspiration for this post came from Wangechi Mwangi, a recent high school graduate and founder of AZMA, a social network that aims to consolidate community service efforts among Kenyan high school students.
Now that that’s out of the way…
We are caught in a rat race – and if you stop one of the mice and ask them why they are running around in circles, they will not give you a definite answer!
That’s the culture we’re adopting in the local tech ecosystem…hot on the heels of our American Silicon Valley counterparts. We’re so indulged in activities that we perceive to be crucial to our ideas’ success yet after giving it much thought, we’re really wasting time on unimportant things.
I’ll give two examples.
Last week I ran an event at the m:lab called Wireless Wednesday which focused on User Experience research for startups with mobile products. The lead discussant, Franco Papeschi of the World Wide Web Foundation (LOVE these guys!), went on and on about how weird it was that local (and some international) developers didn’t spend at least a morning to ask people to test their app with a real audience and give them feedback. (Kindly note that the test referred to here are in the UX context).
I had an answer. In my understanding of the dev mindset, most people would rather spend that time chasing after venture capital and as soon as they get it, they’ll pay off some UX professional to do the necessary tests and research and give feedback.
Notice something flawed about this? Look at it from the flip side. Instead of wasting time and energy seeking venture funding, why doesn’t the developer invest that time in UX tests that will ultimately result into an app/service (whatever) that people will love, use perhaps because it fulfils their needs or solves a problem? Won’t users be more willing to pay for it if this is the case?
University education is weird!
I did a Bachelor’s degree in Business Information Technology in college (and I spend every night wishing I had dropped out!) and I do remember one of my lecturers telling me that one core principle of software development was to solve problems – and this was well illustrated using the software development life cycle diagrams. I found the diagrams boring…but I now realize their importance – something that has continually been sacrificed for what people keep chasing after in the rat race.
While coursework hasn’t changed much, a lot of co-curricular activities supporting coursework has. We’re increasingly seeing universities shifting their focus on their core goal (i.e. research) to looking for grants left right and center.
I recently attended an event at Strathmore University‘s iLabAfrica where the patron (or whoever he was) went on and on about all the grants they had received in excess of hundreds of millions of shillings. I had one question for him: how many smiles have you put on your beneficiaries faces and does it justify the sum of money you are the chest thumping about?
Here’s the bottom line.
Unless you are directly making an impact in someone’s life with you apps and all the hustle around them, you’re really doing nothing meaningful. I’ve said this over and over and over on this blog and in others I contribute to.
For some reason, no one seems to be listening…yet, none of these seem to know what they are doing.
I recently had a chat with two people I have a lot of respect for: Jay Bhalla and Phares Kariuki. We went back and forth about how devs have no clue about how venture capital works, business model innovation or even basic pitching skills. That isn’t the striking thing though.
What shocks me about this is that despite the lack of insight into these and other fields, a number of guys are plunging themselves into the ecosystem! Why would anyone do that!? So far, my answer is simply for the money…and two, coz every other mouse is doing it!
Get real people!
Money is driving people in totally wrong directions!
Sober up and think about it for a second.
What’s more meaningful and worth your hustle? Money or impact?
Last week I had the opportunity to interview Vint Cerf, the “father of the Internet”, at the iHub Synergistic Communities event. Naturally, my questions we’re targeted at Google’s “devotion” to the Internets’ roots as built into the TCP/IP protocol (I think Google is the only firm that has successfully remained true to the Internet’s fundamental founding principles while at the same time still making a hell of a profit – but I guess that’s another blog post on its own).
As the interview continued, Vint mentioned something that caught my attention. Well, its not exactly what he said but how he contextualized it. Vint focused our conversation to his latest passion and current work: building an intergalactic internet infrastructure backbone. He explained the intricacies of how this will work and that’s when the “light bulb” moment hit me!
Here was a guy looking at the next best thing, not in the short term timeline, but an achievement he hoped would be realized in the next 25 years! There’s only one word that can summarize this and at the same time add a waft of class to it: VISIONARY! What I see in Vint is a guy willing to delay gratitude and short term
economically oriented gains for something much greater – and to be honest, very few posses this quality…especially with the current trend in East Africa’s tech circles.
You see, locally, we’ve perfected the model of consumer -facing apps and tech products whose ultimate goal is the app store. This model has two problems: one, its not sustainable as a business. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any successful business that makes its money purely out of selling apps in various app stores (unless their core business is developing the apps themselves). Secondly, it doesn’t contribute much to innovation. This model fans the furnace that drives the “re-invention wheel”. Lastly, it doesn’t solve problems. Those of us who we’re lucky to have gone through formal university training know that problem solving and meeting people’s needs is a core pillar of software engineering. I know very few apps that we’re coded in two days that do this. A good number of them ride on a “popularity wave” based on technology (as evidenced by the Android platform) among other factors.
I strongly believe that the East African developer community should start to look towards long term, practical projects and I might add that the core focus be on the back end of the innovation and not necessarily trying to please consumers in order to get them to write you a cheque. Let’s be visionary…like the ones who went before us: Vint Cerf, Tim-Berners Lee, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. All these guys anticipated a need and moved to fulfill it…not in a week. Most of these guys’ achievements span their entire lifetime.
Anyone re-thinking their goals yet?
I’ll illustrate this using a recent experience.
A couple of weeks back I met a developer who was working on an app for the Sub Saharan Android Developer Challenge. It was the last day for submission and this guy was struggling to get his app fine tuned before submission.
A minute or two later, a couple of his friends walked into the room and they had a discussion that in part led me to write this post. The guy developing the app told his other two buddies about how he hoped to win the cash prize for the Android challenge and what he would do with the money. A lot of it centred on getting popular gadgets etc. To this point, nothing he said really bothered me.
A little further down the conversation, the developer made clear his intentions. He went on and on about how he would enter the app in a number of ongoing and upcoming developer competitions with a clear emphasis on winning the grand cash prize or winning gadgets.
My heart sunk.
A number of developer types are using their skills to earn a living…and don’t get me wrong – I fully support this. We live in a context where a developer is a “hustler” and writing code is a genuine way of sustaining oneself.
…and while this is true, most abuse it…and even worse, most sacrifice innovation by doing this.
What I mean by this is that a great amount of our efforts are spent satisfying our passions instead of pushing the limits as to what we can do with code. If the reverse were true, I strongly believe we would be making solid strides in tech innovation and not re-inventing the wheel as I see most people doing.
Here’s a different story to illustrate this.
When Google developed Chrome, it was basically viewed as a challenge to Firefox and came off as re-inventing the wheel. Google then later announced they were going to attach a kernel directly to a browser in a bid to create an operating system of a different kind. Look how that has turned out.
A couple of years down the line, Google has two flagship devices running Chrome OS that creates a new revenue stream for them and a world of possibilities for innovation in Cloud Computing spheres as well as in various digital domains.
Had they focused their entire efforts in marketing chrome to”satisfy their passions”, Google would have lost an opportunity that very few had seen.
Innovation spurs opportunity…including economic opportunity.
Opportunity does not extend innovation…rather it kills it – and this is the role “sufuria economics” is playing in the local (Kenyan) Tech scene.
Think about it.